How Mindfulness Meditation can improve your mental health


Many of us, if not all, live good portions of our waking lives stuck in our heads.

Stuck thinking.
Stuck replaying stories that aren’t actually reality.
Stuck worried about what might happen.
Stuck afraid of what others think.
Stuck concerned with what may never come to pass.
Stuck in what happened yesterday.
Stuck anxious, worried, and afraid.

I sure know I do. I’m the chief offender here.

I’ve found a few tools to help experience this “stuck-ness” and move through it so it doesn’t get me down, derail my day, and bury me in a funk. One of these tools may sound cliche, but it’s powerful.

Mindfulness meditation.

A few years back, I began the process of selling a business (at the time it wasn’t my choice, but it was happening). I worked 60 hours a week. When I was home, I wasn’t home, but on my phone solving issues at work. I had 3 children aged 6 and under and wasn’t all that present in the moments as their lives were unfolding. It was more of a go go go, busy busy busy, do do do lifestyle, and I was pretty good at it. My wife and kids, however, got a very distant and non-present husband and father. I was always thinking about the next moment, about the one-more store I could open, that one-day bigger paycheck, that one-day better intimacy, that one-day when my kids slept more, that one-day home I would buy; you get the picture. I was unable to simply be here and now in the moment.

With this business sale, I had some spare time to explore new skills that I imagined would be beneficial to my life. One such skill was a mindfulness meditation course. It wasn’t simply an informational course, rather it was an 8 week practice course. I remember on day one of the course expressing to the class that I wanted to learn to be present with my children, what I got was a whole hell of a lot more.

Week one of the practice intensified every bit of anxiety I carried, resulting in my teacher exclaiming, “your practice is working well, keep it up.” Huh, meditation is supposed to intensify my anxiety? But I trusted her and I was intrigued at what was happening. It turns out that my anxiety wasn’t getting worse, rather, I was slowing down and actually noticing it. I was aware of it more. This was the beginning of a new type of journey for me.

After years of practice, I still feel like a beginner. However, I notice my ability to control my anxiety more, my ability to get out of my head and into my body more, and my awareness to let the fictional stories in my thoughts go quicker and allow my attention to settle on what is actually happening here and now, to what is. I’ve learned to take the long view and trust the process.

I describe mindfulness as the purposeful practice of becoming aware to your experiences (senses) in each moment. These senses include paying attention to your breath, sounds, smells, physical sensations, emotions, seeing, and thinking. For me, I was missing most of these moment to moment experiences as I looked to the future for what could be someday.

Here are 3 ways to understand how mindfulness might be helpful to mental health:

ONE

The practice of becoming aware to your experience in the moment can take you out of your mind, out of the stories that lead to anxiety, stress, worry, or fear, and into your body, into the reality of the present moment. By getting into your body and noticing your current reality, you short circuit the busy mind that is bringing you to fear or worry or stress. Instead, you are noticing the clouds pass, the birds chirp, the people passing, the train screeching, the aroma of the dumpster, the flavor of the coffee, or simply the breath entering and exiting your nostrils. You are dropped into the present, to the magic of mundane life and therefore not stuck in your thoughts. You see, you cannot be anxious about a year from now when focused on the sensation of the warm sun on your skin. Rather, you are present to the now, whatever it might be.

TWO

This practice can help you come to understand and lean into the conflict you may be working through which is causing the mental health issue. For example, reflecting back to my experience in the first week of the meditation practice. I began to notice the anxiety more because I was becoming more aware of it. With that awareness came understanding of what caused the anxiety. I was fearful of selling my company and losing my work. Ultimately, I was fearful of losing the stability I had helped create. For years I had held the stability as the pinnacle of life; I was a slave to it, to the control. I didn’t know how to live in the unknown and mystery that life can be. As I became more aware of it and didn’t ignore it, as I noticed the sensations that presented in my body, the more I was able to come to grips with it, manage it, and make choices in the direction I wanted to move in. If you are fearful of a specific situation, practice becoming aware, pay attention, and lean into the fear, then you may help reduce the fear. It can lessen the effects the fear holds over you, allowing you to experience the fear for what it is, and help control it, and ultimately integrate it into your being.

THREE

A continual meditation practice is a tool to strengthen ones ability to cope with mental health issues. The practice encourages you to continuously drop into a state of awareness of the present moment more often. This is important because if one is present to the actual experience in the moment, be it tasting food, strumming a guitar, changing a diaper, or even driving a car, then the individual is strictly in the now, and not lost down the rabbit hole of the mind. This can be quite powerful. Imagine, instead of worrying about all the bad things that may or may not happen to you in an unknown future, you simply experience the things that are ACTUALLY happening now. Then you have the chance to choose your attitude and response to what is happening moment by moment. This can reduce the amount of time you live in an anxious state. This is also a path to having greater control over your mind and thoughts and emotional state in life. Now that’s Powerful.

This is a practice.
It’s not a skill that comes naturally to most of us.
It can be frustrating and feel silly at times.

If you make the practice a discipline, over time, it can become a skill that’ll transform you. Remember, it will always be a practice, one you’ll never arrive at an end to, rather one you’ll continue practicing in order to be and stay present to your life. Life is a series of emotions, sensations, thoughts, and experiences. Be with those experiences as they truly are in the present moment. Notice what is happening so you can then choose the best path forward.

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